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Redesigning a Kitchen

Rice University’s inventive recipe for an abandoned building

Photo: HENRY PETROSKI - The bypass bridge is a magnificent addition.In anticipation of a visit to Rice University last spring, I was sent an agenda for my time in Houston. One item in particular caught my eye: meetings with a number of faculty members in a venue identified as the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. I located the building on a campus map, but that was of little help for understanding exactly what a design kitchen was.

In the absence of facts or context, I let my imagination carry me away in the direction of fancy and fantasy. I surmised that a “design kitchen” was a carefully thought-out academic metaphor for a place where fresh design ideas were cooked up, recipes for invention followed, and new concoctions put to the test. There could never be too many cooks in a design kitchen, I reasoned, because the more interdisciplinary participants the better. And if you could not stand the Texas heat, you could always go into the air-conditioned design kitchen.

When I finally arrived at Rice’s design kitchen, I found it to be a wonderfully open and welcoming space. Since my visit occurred near the end of the semester, my guide explained, I would have to excuse the tools, materials, and works in progress that spilled over and out from the otherwise neatly and amply separated tables at which student design teams worked to beat end-of-term deadlines.

A large and well-equipped machine shop stretches the length of one side of the building, easily seen through the wall of windows that separated it and its dust and noise from the workspace proper. Most of a perpendicular wall is lined with conference rooms enclosed by glass, so that it is immediately obvious whether a room is occupied or not. These rooms are available for design teams to confer among themselves and with faculty advisors. They and the design kitchen generally had become so popular across campus that even students outside engineering had begun to flock to it. Thought was being given to expanding into the basement.

As I met with faculty members associated with the university’s design programs, I waited for an opportunity to ask the origin of the term design kitchen. It turns out that the explanation is much simpler than I imagined. The building, which used to be the central food-preparation facility for the campus, had been abandoned when newer facilities became available. The old kitchen became a storage room, but its proximity to the engineering buildings and its large open plan made it attractive for converting into student design-project space. A $2.4 million gift from Kenneth Oshman, a Rice alumnus, and his wife, Barbara, to establish a place where engineering students from all departments could collaborate on design projects made the transformation possible.

The thoughtfully renovated interior space was so successful that the design program grew accordingly. When it was time to give a name to the facility, the design faculty considered some familiar designations: design laboratory, design studio, project space, etc. But when the most apt “design kitchen” was suggested, it was soon embraced as a distinctive way to identify something unique to Rice. Sometimes the best choice for a new name for an existing building with a new use is simply to modify the old name by which it had for so long been known. So Rice’s old Hicks Kitchen became the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen.

Since my visit to Rice I have learned that the Missouri University of Science and Technology has acquired an old bakery building in Rolla for students to use for their design projects, but to the best of my knowledge they are not calling it their Design Bakery.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His most recent book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems, is now available in paperback.




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